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2004-02-14 20:47:27

    Taipei, Feb. 14 (CNA) President Chen Shui-bian defended his decision Saturday to call a referendum to be held along with the March 20 presidential election as the rightful way to protect Taiwan from being attacked by mainland China.

    Chen made the remarks in a televised debate with the sole challenger to his re-election bid, opposition Kuomintang (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan.

    In the section of the debate where the candidates were allowed to ask questions of each other, Lien asked Chen about the rationale behind his decision to hold a referendum under the current circumstances. According to the Referendum Act, Lien said, the president can call a referendum only when the nation's sovereignty is being threatened. "How do you come to the conclusion that Taiwan's sovereign status is now at risk?" Lien asked.

    In response, Chen said Lien would have not asked such a question if he had carefully read Article 17 of the Referendum Act. "I think you have misread the Referendum Act provision. The clause does not mean that the president can hold a referendum only when the nation's sovereignty is being changed. Instead, the clause clearly states that a referendum can be held when the nation's sovereign status faces a threat or risk to be changed," Chen said.

    Given that mainland China has deployed 496 ballistic missiles against Taiwan, refuses to renounce the option of using force against Taiwan and pressures Taiwan to accept its "one China" principle and "one country, two systems" unification terms, Chen said Taiwan cannot wait until for an attack from mainland China to hold a referendum. "As a national leader, I must have vision and foresight. I must defend the status quo of Taiwan's sovereignty, economic prosperity, democratic political system and lifestyle, as well as safeguard peace in the Taiwan Strait. And this is the rationale behind my decision to hold a referendum alongside the upcoming presidential election," Chen explained.

    Noting that the referendum will remind local people not to harbor unrealistic allusions about Beijing authorities, Chen said he is convinced that the two questions on the referendum reflect mainstream public opinion. "I hope Lien and his party will not obstruct the upcoming referendum," the president added.

    Chen accused Lien of flip-flopping on relations with mainland China. He rattled off a long list of positions that Lien has adopted and abandoned over the past five years on cross-strait relations. "How can the 23 million people of Taiwan trust you?" Chen asked as he argued that he would prevent Taiwan from being absorbed by mainland China.

    The president also alleged that Beijing was supporting Lien's candidacy by allowing Taiwanese businessmen operating on the mainland to form pro-Lien groups. Beijing in the past has blocked such activities.

    Chen accused Lien's opposition "pan-blue alliance" of trying to block his attempts to push for political and judicial reforms. He also said that if he weren't elected four years ago, there would have been no crackdown on corruption.

    Reaffirming his commitment to establishing clean politics, Chen called for Lien's support for early passage of major "sunshine bills" in the Legislative Yuan, including the political contributions bill. The "pan-blue alliance" of the KMT and the People First Party controls a majority in the legislature.

    For the first time, Chen promised that after the March 20 election, he will entrust all of his family assets to professional managing firms.

    Chen further said his administration has managed to turn several state-owned enterprises into profitable companies, and he promised to set up a public university in each county if he is re-elected.

    The president also touted his efforts to promote cultural diversity and ethnic harmony, citing that he took the lead in setting up an aboriginal affairs council during his tenure as Taipei mayor and that since he assumed the presidency, his administration has set up the Cabinet-level Hakka Affairs Council, a Hakka TV channel, a Hakka radio broadcasting network and a Hakka culture research institute.

    Refuting Lien's ridicule of his administration's poor economic record, Chen said Taiwan has actually outperformed many other countries in economic growth even when the global economy was suffering one of its worst recessions in recent memory in 2002. "During that year, we registered a 3.59 percent economic growth rate, compared to America's 2.4 percent, Hong Kong's 2.3 percent, Singapore's 2.2 percent and Japan's 0.3 percent," Chen said.

    He further rebutted Lien's claim that Taiwan's wealth gap has widened during the DPP's four-year rule. "The income gap between the richest 20 percent and the poorest 20 percent of the people was 6.16 times in Taiwan last year, lower than South Korea's 6.8 times, Hong Kong's 17 times and Singapore's 20 times," Chen said proudly.

    Even though the opposition parties have often painted a bleak picture of the local economy, Chen said, Taiwan has actually bottomed out of a recession. "Our unemployment rate has declined and the economic growth rate will exceed 5 percent this year," he said.

    Chen questioned the feasibility of Lien's proposal to offer an 18 percent interest rate to labor pensions. "Such a measure, if adopted, will cost the national coffers at least NT$100 billion a year. The 18 percent interest rate privilege for retired civil servants was canceled in 1995. I can't understand why Lien would propose a resumption of the measure for blue-collar workers. It will affect welfare benefits for other disadvantaged groups in the long run, " he added.

    The live TV debate was the first of its kind ever held in Taiwan. The event was jointly organized by Public Television Service (PTS), the Taipei Society, the China Times, the United Daily News, the Liberty Times and the Taiwan Daily.

    In addition to the PTS, 11 other local TV stations and five radio stations broadcast the debate live.

    The debate started with each candidate delivering an eight-minute speech on their vision for the nation's future and major policy initiatives.

    Their opening remarks were followed by a question-and-answer session, with five representatives from various walks of life posing questions to the two.

    The five were Huang Kun-yen of the Medical Education Committee under the Ministry of Education, Chu Ching-yi of the nation's highest research institute, Academia Sinica, Lin Ching-ping, executive director of a private judicial reform committee, Wang Jung-chang, spokesman of the "pan-purple alliance, " which is comprised mainly of underprivileged and social welfare groups, and political professor Wang Yeh-li of Tunghai University.

    The two candidates plan to debate again next Saturday.

(By Sofia Wu)


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